While you can’t judge this CD by its cover (as the old saw sort of goes), you can learn an awful lot about Ska Cubano’s ¡Ay Caramba! before you even slip the disc into your player. The band’s name explicates their simple mission: to marry the sounds of two Caribbean cultures by blending the emphasis-on-the-upbeat feel of Jamaican ska with the Afro-based drums and the lazily happy horns of Cuba. Heck, you didn’t actually need to see the cover to pick up on that. Further, just from the title, with exclamation points a-go-go, you know that Ska Cubano are here to have fun. Okay, now you can look at the cover again. What a couple of wacky guys! Dressed in duds straight out of the early 20th century, the sartorial selections of Natty Bo and Beny Billy give you a big clue as to one more very important aspect of their musical venture: these felluhs are all about the retro.
At this moment, you might be concerned about the cheese factor. You can almost catch a whiff of the sharp tang of kitsch wafting off of ¡Ay Caramba!. And, to be sure, Ska Cubano tread near the precipice of poor taste. They are not, however, merely mimicking the past. Billy and Bo are into it, man! Natty has been a ska enthusiast since he was a kid, having discovered some vinyl at a yard sale. And there’s no question that Beny is the real deal, a Cuban crooner discovered in a bar in Santiago de Cuba.
The two singers have teamed with a trio of saxophonists (one of whom also plays flute), a pianist, and a pair each of bassists, drummers (trap set and hand drums), and players of the trés, which is something of a guitar-meets-mandolin, with three sets of strings, each set tuned to the same note (usually in octaves).
This crack band support Natty Bo and Beny Billy throughout a set of 14 tracks, mixing covers with a few originals. The song on the album that will likely be most recognizable to Western ears is “Istanbul (Not Constantinople”, the 1950s novelty song famously performed during its initial run by the vocal pop group the Four Lads and then revived more recently by those awesome oddball mavericks, They Might Be Giants. I suspect that Natty Bo has a bit of the maverick in him, as well, since he rewrote the entirety of the lyrics to the classic track. His version strips away the goofiness of the original, but leaves intact the daydreamy romanticism for “exotic” places that one associates with an earlier time: “Now the crescent moon / And the stars that reach beyond / Whisper to us secrets / I can only find in / Istanbul”. On the other end of the authenticity spectrum lies “Bobine”, a traditional Haitian merengue performed with only call-and-response vocals and percussion (bata drums, congas, etc.).
The majority of the album lies in the fertile middle ground. Opener “Soy Campesino” is a ‘50s Colombian dancehall number, done here as a slow and sultry cumbia with cartoonish horns that sound like they could’ve come from a Raymond Scott recording. With a rich baritone, Billy sings the tune in its native tongue. The title track is a Natty Bo original, sung in an English mock-patois and played with a marked ska feel that wouldn’t feel terribly out of place on a Specials LP.
I like to imagine Beny Billy and Natty Bo literally bumping into one another, their two musical flavors mixing together in pleasant surprise, like so many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups ads of yesteryear. A sort of modern lounge album, ¡Ay Caramba! is a fun and very well performed melding of national styles that are similarly appealing and yet are comprised of very different ingredients. Still, combining the recipes works. “You mixed your Cuban music with my ska. You mixed your ska with my Cuban music. Hey, they sound great together!”